I travel a lot for hunting, fishing, and foraging, and often I’m called upon to do the cooking in camp or in the janky kitchen at someone’s deer or duck shack. As a former restaurant cook, I normally like to have an array of nice pots and pans, produce, oils, fresh meats, and dried herbs and spices handy.
Well, this ain’t happenin’ when you cook on the tailgate of your truck after a duck hunt or around a campfire in the backcountry after a fruitless day looking for elk. In these situations, I bust out my culinary version of a “bug out” bag.
With a few key ingredients, all of which are light, hardy, and tasty, I can make a damn good meal just about anywhere.
What to bring? Cooking oil, salt, onions, garlic, dried herbs and spices, dried mushrooms and fruits, vinegar or citrus, some booze, and a stash of bouillon cubes. These ingredients will last quite a while in a secure box you can keep in your vehicle. They can be as fancy or as mundane as you’d like. Let me break down this list.
Oil or Fat
Unless you like boiled food or feel like roasting everything on a stick, oils or fats are a must. Olive oil will keep in a dark place for a year, so having some handy will make your life in the field a lot easier. Skip the cooking fats, like butter and lard, as they can go rancid quickly.
Salt, Herbs and Spices
You’d be surprised how often people forget salt and spices. A trout roasted over an open fire is nice, but a trout roasted over an open fire with a sprinkle of salt is magical. Likewise with the dried herbs and spices. Black pepper, thyme, oregano, caraway, you name it. Tip: Get some little plastic bags and put the herbs and spices in those…much lighter than glass jars.
Onions & Garlic
Both are foundational ingredients in no small part because yellow storage onions and properly cured garlic can last up to a year. Virtually no other vegetables will keep as long or are as versatile in the kitchen.
Dried Mushrooms & Fruits
A few reconstituted morels or other mushrooms can turn a simple soup sexy. Add a handful of chopped dried fruit to a pan sauce for that fish you just caught or that venison tenderloin from the morning and you have the makings of a gourmet meal.
Vinegar or Citrus
In the restaurant we try to balance sweet and sour, savory and spicy. Many dishes are nice by themselves, but come alive with a bit of acidity. A small bottle of vinegar or a few lemons or limes will provide that in the field. Citrus will keep for a couple weeks on the road. Vinegar will last forever, but the tradeoff is that it’s another bottle to bring.
Brandy, wine, and whiskey are the most versatile alcohols—both to drink and to cook with. A splash of brandy in the pan after cooking freshly killed mallards just seems to elevate things. Ditto for a glug of white wine after trout fishing.
Normally, I hate these things, but they are useful for cooking wild game in the field. Drop a cube into boiling water and you have soup. Add half a cube to a pan sauce and you’ve seasoned it and added a punch of flavor at the same time. Bouillon will never replace good broth, but it’s a helluva lot lighter.
To bring it all together, check out the recipe on the next page. I am doing it with a duck breast, but the same recipe will work with venison of any kind, beef, lamb, or goat. If you are cooking fish or poultry, just switch the red wine to white.
The Day’s Catch with Morels and Red Wine
1 cup water
Small handful of dried mushrooms
4 duck or chicken breasts, venison medallions, steaks, fish fillets, etc.
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Splash of red wine, about ¼ cup
½ bouillon cube
If the meat was refrigerated, take it out to come to room temperature. Salt it well.
Crumble the dried mushrooms in water to soften. Let them soak while you chop the onion and the garlic.
When the mushrooms are soft enough to cut, carefully take them out of the water, which will have turned brown. Chop the mushrooms small and set aside. Keep the soaking water.
Put the cooking oil in a frying pan and get it nice and hot. If you have paper towels, pat the meat dry before laying it into the pan—skip this step if you’re short of paper towels. Sear the meat hard on one side until a crust forms and then releases from the pan. This will take about eight minutes with most meats, about four minutes with fish. Turn the meat and cook until done, about two or three minutes more, depending on the meat or fish. Move the meat to a plate.
To make the sauce: Add the chopped onion and mushrooms and stir-fry over high heat until the onions brown at the edges. Add the garlic and thyme and cook another minute. Add the wine. Carefully pour the water from soaking the mushrooms into the pan, making sure that no mushroom debris gets into the pan; strain this liquid through a paper towel if you have one. Add the ½ bouillon cube. Boil this down by half.
Pour the sauce over the meat and grind some black pepper over everything.